A worker, minor partner in a company or independent contractor involved in the fur trade. Today, the word voyageur, like the term coureur des bois, evokes the romantic image of men canoeing across the continent in search of furs and living a life full of perilous adventure, gruelling work and cheerful camaraderie.

The voyageurs were independent contractors, workers or minor partners in a company who were involved in the fur trade. The fur trade changed over the years, as did the groups of men working in it. In the 17th century, voyageurs were often coureurs des bois, independent (but not solitary) traders responsible for obtaining goods for Aboriginal peoples from suppliers.

Trading Licences and Hired Workers

In the late 17th century, it became increasingly difficult to obtain a trading licence (known as a congé) and goods on credit. The implementation of the trading licence system in 1681 set voyageurs apart from coureurs des bois. The former were contracted by merchants or military officers with permits, whereas the latter were typically considered outlaws of sorts because they could not obtain permits from colonial authorities. Voyageurs were young men hired to transport goods to trading posts and forbidden to do any trading of their own. Until 1705, roughly 60 young men travelled on behalf of the Compagnie de la Colonie as far as the post of Detroit (founded in 1701), earning a modest wage for their efforts. Like the Communauté des Habitants, which operated for about 15 years in the mid-17th century, the Compagnie de la Colonie (created in 1699) gave Canadians a monopoly over the fur trade. Established during a period of decline in the French beaver market, the Compagnie eventually dissolved in 1706, and the French enjoyed a monopoly once again.

Canoe Masters

Later, the voyageur became a “canoe master” in charge of supervising engagés (hired workers) who would transport goods from a merchant-supplier to the Pays d'en Haut ("upper country") and then bring furs back to Montréal. Many young men from the Trois-Rivières region and areas surrounding Montréal worked in the trade each year but did so only casually. However, the sons of habitants involved in the trade typically did make a career out of it, given that they required years of experience and good credit to become voyageurs.

The company or merchant who hired a voyageur occasionally permitted him to trade for himself, which engagés normally were not allowed to do.

Merchant Voyageurs

“Merchant voyageurs” were often minor partners contracted for three years in trading companies established by merchant-suppliers and military officers. Some voyageurs were self-employed and hired only a few men to paddle one or two canoes. A number of former voyageurs — those who did not squander their earnings upon returning to town — later became sedentary merchants. Based on the resources available to them and the location of their family and business networks, they settled down and lived out their days in town or in the country.

The Voyageurs’ Legacy

The fur trade changed once again in the 19th century. The number of engagés had increased to such an extent that the role of voyageur had disappeared and been replaced in the fur trading industry by the bourgeois — often Scottish immigrants. Today, the word voyageur, like the term coureur des bois, evokes the romantic image of men canoeing across the continent in search of furs and living a life full of perilous adventure, gruelling work and cheerful camaraderie.

The stereotypical voyageur outfit featuring a woven arrowed sash is merely a product of our collective imagination, as is the fringed-leather clothing of the coureur des bois. Voyageurs and engagés in the fur trade wore a variety of clothes over the centuries. From the early days of the colony, they wore a mixture of European clothing, Aboriginal garb and colonial adaptations for travelling the continent. Certain garments disappeared over the years to be replaced by others. In the 19th century, men no longer wore the Aboriginal breechcloth, which had replaced French breeches; they preferred trousers instead. However, tuques (knitted wool caps) and capots (hooded coats) remained essential (see Clothing).

The voyageurs left behind a significant repertoire of songs (including "C’est l’aviron qui nous mène," which describes travelling through the Pays d’en Haut, and “Alouette”), some of which are derived from traditional French songs. In addition, a number of festivals and events are held to commemorate the voyageurs, particularly in Western Canada. Each February, Winnipeg holds the Festival du Voyageur to help people discover the richness of the voyageur era and the vitality of Manitoba’s francophone community. The city of Trois-Rivières in the Mauricie region of Québec hosts the Rendez-vous des coureurs des bois de Trois-Rivières, an event that gives visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in a New France–style celebration with food, dance and traditional music.